MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – Alabama lawmakers are expected to face yet another General Fund hole when they return to Montgomery next year, and two top Republicans said it’s time to look for long-term solutions.
Gov. Robert Bentley, in an interview Monday, said he has asked legislators to bring him ideas in advance of the 2015 session. Alabama Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he believes it’s time lawmakers attempted “bold changes.”
“We really want to think more strategically, long-term. I want us to get away from this year-by-year fix it,” Bentley said.
They don’t yet know what those changes should be. Marsh wants to have discussions about possibly undoing budget earmarks, re-examining existing tax breaks and the possibility of merging the education and General Fund budgets, which would certainly spark a firestorm among education groups.
“We have so many big problems facing the state right now, between the budgets and the prisons, and we could go on and on,” Marsh said.
“Before I ran again, I met with my leadership and I made it very clear that I’m not in the mood to come back if y’all are not in agreement that we are going to look at some bold changes for the state to solve these long-term problems,” Marsh said. Both Bentley and Marsh face re-election in November.
Not on the table are new taxes. “I don’t see any new taxes. However, what I do want to look at it is who is getting the tax breaks and why,” Marsh said.
Bentley also said he opposed new taxes. The governor declined to say what ideas he would support.
Alabama voters in 2012 voted to take $437 million out of a state trust fund to help balance the General Fund budget for the next three years and avoid deep cuts. However, when lawmakers return to Montgomery they will be tasked with putting together the first General Fund without the bail out dollars.
Senate General Fund chairman Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said he sees a minimum hole of $160 million in the 2016 budget – the loss of the $145 million trust fund money plus a scheduled $15 million repayment to the trust fund.
Orr said they are undertaking a review of state tax code to see if exemptions approved long ago are still needed today.
Marsh said he wants to discuss whether it makes sense to have two state budgets. The education budget typically sees some growth from increases in sales and income taxes, while the General Fund grows by a smaller amount.
Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, said he would oppose any attempt to merge budgets.
“Merging the two budgets is not a bold idea. It’s a destructive idea,” Sanders said, predicting it would strip money from schools.
Bentley said the state needs a new way of offering economic incentives to lure industries to the state. Alabama has nearly exhausted the borrowing power of a bond commission established under Gov. Don Siegelman to finance incentive packages, he said.
“We compete every day with surrounding states,” Bentley said.
Earlier this month, Bentley mentioned the possibility of a special session on economic incentives. However, he said a special session was “just one of the options.”
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